Going Higher: Low living costs but a dearth of well-paid jobs

If you are in the 90 per cent of students who work part-time to make ends meet, be aware that the wages in the North are generally dire. Maureen O'Connor investigates

Surveys show that 90 per cent of students do paid work at some time during their course. Working your way through college used to be more of a North American phenomenon but some British universities now report that 60 per cent of their students are working during term time and the majority during holidays.

The days when academics seriously told their students that holidays were for reading seem to have disappeared for ever. But there is evidence that working during term depresses academic performance, so it is something to be approached with caution, especially if you are taking a particularly demanding course or have any other doubts about your ability to cope with the academic work.

Few universities forbid term-time work outright but some limit the number of hours they allow students to work - although policing such rules is difficult. Do not expect tutors to be sympathetic about late essays or poor results, simply because you have a term-time job. The secret is to balance academic and paid work and leave yourself time for a social life, which is part of what going to university has always been about.

Universities that set time limits on paid employment generally fix them at about 10 to 15 hours a week. To avoid any difficulties, find out from your tutor what is expected. Universities and students' unions have accommodated the financial pressure on students by providing some part-time work. Student bars and clubs, university libraries and offices, security work and driving inter-site buses may all be found on campus. Increasingly, unions and universities have set up employment agencies to help students.

For summer jobs the careers service may be able to help. And if you are in a department with a vocational bias, lecturers may know of companies offering part-time opportunities, which in turn could lead to permanent work after graduation.

If you feel you need a job, start looking early. The best ones get snapped up at the beginning of term. Some universities have a waiting list for jobs in the union bar by the end of the first day of term. And do not expect to get rich. Skills such as typing or a language attract the best pay - up to pounds 20 an hour for a translator - but most jobs available to students are unskilled and poorly paid, in bars, fast food outlets, supermarkets and warehouses.

The pay in the north can be dire: the minimum wage of pounds 3.60 sounds good to many students earning between pounds 2 and pounds 3 an hour in part-time manual jobs. But many may still fail to get as much as that because are too young to qualify for the minimum wage. Most students with part-time jobs earn between pounds 30 and pounds 100 a week, which can be seen only as a useful top-up.

Unsocial hours can present difficulties if you find it hard to get up next morning in time for lectures. And for women, getting home safely from work at night may be a problem. Check arrangements for staff safety before committing to an evening job. A taxi home will make a big hole in a small pay packet.

The availability of work may be one of the factors applicants now consider when applying for a university place. If so, it is as well to be aware of the levels of prosperity in the town or city you plan to live in for three or four years. High local unemployment rates affect students just as much as other workers. Low living costs in the north have to be set against high levels of unemployment; and where jobs of any sort are hard to find, pay rates will be as low. Bradford may live up to its claim to be the cheapest student city in the UK, but that has to be balanced against a shortage of jobs and pay rates as low as pounds 2.20 an hour.

Parts of the North-east also have high unemployment; jobs can be hard to find in places as diverse as Liverpool, Huddersfield, Sunderland and Preston in term time and virtually impossible in the summer vacation.

On the other hand, booming Leeds has plenty of work at reasonable rates, most students in Sheffield find work, Newcastle offers some opportunities and Manchester has a reasonable supply of jobs - though pay can be low.

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